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Descending Into Madness with Cultist Simulator

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  • The cultist as a character has always been unknowable. Born like any other, clothed and fed and sheltered and taught, but somehow different. In virtually all fiction, there is something inhuman in the portrayal of the cultist. More than just an outsider, the attitude of a cultist is otherworldly. Their compulsive, obsessive, self-destructive nature is alien, especially tied to the eldritch, existential horror they often try to understand and invoke.

    Their existence, like the abominations they summon, defies all logic. They live at the periphery of society, as well as its very heart. They appear as nobles and strangers, businessmen and fishermen. Working in secret, cultists forsake the simple pleasures and necessities of life for unknowable rituals and revered study. This is the strangest aspect of the cultist, their devotion to studying and researching above all else. Commonly they are seen sacrificing both their physical and mental health in pursuit of some terrible knowledge.

    We are not meant to emphasise with these people. Perhaps we are not meant to see them as people at all. Their motives are profane, their devotion perverse and lives forfeit. Where ever we find cultists, from the formative work of HP Lovecraft to the novels, films and games they went on to inspire, their very presence is ominous, foreboding and antagonistic. As our heroes unravel their minds to save us from the heinous forces the cultists wish to raise, we are always left wondering what could drive such ineffable desire.

    For us, the normal people of the world, desire is rarely anything beyond a selfish want. We crave good food, good entertainment and good lives, and the depiction of the cultist is always the antithesis of that. Where we seek knowledge to improve and order our lives, their pursuit only causes destruction and chaos.

    To simulate the life and work of a cultist, is to reach into what we imagine they are like, forsake our own notions of morality and mortality, and to grapple with the madness we see in the cultist. Their indiscernible motives have to be exposed, humanised, and understood. Cultist Simulator not only lets you experience the descent into the dreadful and the unknown, it tricks you. It plays with you as you play with it.
    Cultist Simulator feels like treading water. While at first it can be relaxing as you watch a life, your life, unfold on a vaguely sinister table, soon you’ll become overwhelmed by the crashing waves of madness, study and intrigue. All you have to do in Cultist Simulator is manage a collection of various countdowns that represent everything from working and sleeping to studying ancient texts and staying ahead of your secretive adversaries. They are activated with cards that describe everything from furtive thoughts to locations, people and rituals. But these countdowns have to be manually reset, and that is where the madness quietly waits for you.

    In the beginning, your table is clean and empty. You’ll be considered by the mundane things in life, like work, sleep and health. But as you begin to tentatively peek behind the curtain of the mundane, and start to explore the occult, the tide begins to come in, bringing with it new treasures. Before long you’ll have a dozen countdowns seemingly spiralling out of control. One event will immediately launch another with cards being thrown onto the table and removed with abandon. The nature of these things makes it incredibly hard to organise your deck as everything is constantly in flux and cards are rarely still for long.

    On top of that you’ll be trying to piece together a jigsaw of cards to create a ritual or further your research. You might find a notebook by your computer filled with strange passages about rites, secrets and navigating dreams that you’ve written yourself to try and make sense of it all. Progressing in Cultist Simulator is descending. Descending into your research, into your madness, into your fears.

    And all while this is happening, while these eldritch gears are shifting and cards are turning to dust and investigations gather momentum, time is also progressing. Somewhere in this pile of cards and countdowns is your funds, and your health, and your job. Somewhere in this sea of roaring knowledge and experience is the mundane life you once had. The life that now feels so unimportant. The life where you only had to worry about your job and your health.

    Death in this game is not sudden. It is slow and meticulous and telegraphed. As the waves take you underneath you are given ample opportunities to escape towards the shore. Heath might turn to illness, funds might slip away and dreams might turn to despair, but you find yourself continuing to focus on your studies. You continue to try and unlock the secrets hiding behind the reality of this game, not because you want to but because you have to. The puzzle is almost solved and you just need to make sure to use these important cards before they disappear.

    But of course they do disappear, they all disappear. As the table empties, the camera draws your eye to whatever it was that ended your wretched life. Was it hunger? Or madness? Did your research draw the attention of the authorities, and you were to busy to notice? No matter what it was, it feels like something you could have avoided. A plate you could have kept spinning if there weren’t so many others to focus on.

    And with that the madness behind the cultists doesn’t feel so alien. The all-consuming nature of their study becomes almost sympathetic. Cultist Simulator is not just a game, but a thought exercise. Before playing it might seem impossible to lose everything in the pursuit of knowledge, but there is something inside us all, something old and self-destructive that can be activated under the right, or wrong circumstances. Cultist Simulator uses the human condition to find patterns and solve problems, the need to feel special and our desire to understand what it all means to destroy ourselves.

    It is a cliché to say that perhaps Cultist Simulator is a reflective tool to show us the darker side of our nature, but there is some truth to it. Cultists might seem inhuman, but their actions in fiction, however absurd, however debased, can be understandable. You just have to allow the waves of madness and obsession to wash over you.

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